KIT AND SARAH returned to camp from their trip to the mercantile driving Kit’s newly purchased buckboard. After loading the covered wagons with a few pieces of furniture, food, and supplies there’d be no room left for people, and she didn’t want to walk to South Pass or put extra stress on Stormy.
A little girl with soft brown curls and big brown eyes chased Tate around a stack of burlap bags. She laughed, the dog barked, and she laughed some more. Kit couldn’t remember the last time she played with him.
“That’s Elizabeth. She’s ten.” Sarah stood on tip-toes and stretched her neck, searching the adjoining campsites. Then she pointed toward a child walking in their direction. “There’s Frances.” A note of relief sounded in Sarah’s voice. “She just turned eight.”
Frances Barrett is a child?
Kit climbed to the ground and swayed again. Quickly, she grabbed the side of the wagon with one hand then pressed the other against her queasy stomach. I’m here because of an eight-year-old’s journal. The possibility existed now that Elliott had been right when he said, “I call it fabricated.” But Kit had wanted to believe in Frances. And now? She honestly didn’t know.
Sarah whispered to Kit. “I fainted with each of mine. Let me fix you some fennel tea to settle your stomach.”
Each of mine. Kit gasped. “Oh, I’m not pregnant. I just haven’t eaten much in the past few days.”
“You need to eat. Let me—”
“Thank you, but there’s no need.”
Sarah pursed her lips.
“I’ll eat in the hotel dining room tonight.” Kit worked up a smile, but it didn’t relieve the concern written on the woman’s face.
Frances folded to the ground at Kit’s feet like a marionette when the puppeteer sets the crossbar aside. Tabor jumped into her lap, and she giggled when he danced his long tail in her face. “Adam said you’re traveling with us. Will you be my sister like Elizabeth?”
Kit sat beside her on the ground, curious about the child. “I could be a sister or a friend.”
“Do you have brothers?”
“I’m an only child,” Kit said.
Frances placed her warm, tiny fingers on Kit’s hand. “Don’t be sad. One day you’ll have a baby and you won’t be alone ever again.”
What an odd thing for her to say. Not even a baby would fill the loneliness that swam just below the surface of Kit’s life.
“If we’re going to be sisters, will you help me read the books Adam reads?”
“I’d love to help you.”
A smile touched her pretty, heart-shaped mouth. “Will you help Elizabeth too?”
“We should ask Elizabeth what she wants.”
“She wants the same as me. To be smart and go to university. Do you think girls can go to university?”
Intelligent and intuitive. “I suspect you have the tenacity to go wherever you want and knock down doors if they won’t let you in.”
A frown crossed Frances’ face. “Then I’ll need Papa’s hammer.”
As a little girl, Kit’s father’s toolbox, full of wooden handles worn smooth and shaped to his grip, had fascinated her. Several of the old tools were stored in the wagon with her supplies. “In case he won’t give up his, you can have mine. It was one of my father’s.”
Frances’ frown turned upwards and more than a hint of mischief gleamed in her eyes.
Kit realized at that moment, the child was capable of anything.
HOURS LATER, KIT entered the Noland House dining room wearing a green silk taffeta dress with a deep neckline and white lace under-sleeves. Tan ribbons edged the matching jacket. Her mother had created the gown for the previous year’s Old Kentucky Farm Days Annual Gala. Kit and Scott had danced the quadrille under a canopy of stars until an emergency called him to the hospital. The next time they’d danced had been during the party on New Year’s Eve. She shivered as thoughts of the crash and the drunk driver who killed her parents and her friend punched through her fragile protective wall, leaving her edgy and on the verge of a panic attack.
Wearing the dress tonight added to the eerie sensation that she was crawling across a bridge spanning two worlds. The quicker she got to the other end, to South Pass, the quicker she could go home and attempt to rebuild her life—an alien thought.
The maitre d’hôtel seated her in the busy dining room’s front corner between a drafty window, and a fire blazing up the chimney. She looked about. From her vantage point, she could see most of the diners in the room and the crowded sidewalk outside. He handed her a menu and lit the candle in the center of the table. After a quick glance at the Bill of Fare, she decided to pass on the pig head, buffalo tongue, boned chicken a-la-happy-family, and settled for roasted venison and a bottle of Mumm’s Cabinet Champagne.
With a glass of wine and dinner on the way, she opened her journal to jot down a few notes and rein in her distressed thoughts. Instead, she drew caricatures of the people she’d met.
An hour later with an empty plate, a full stomach, and another glass of wine, she returned to her drawing of Cullen, draping him in a Montgomery plaid.
“Did you enjoy your supper?”
She jerked her head back, settling her gaze on a distinguished-looking man standing beside the table. Amusement played across his face. “Mr. Montgomery?” She blinked once then twice. Then finding a measure of composure, closed her journal, hiding the caricature that exaggerated his shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard. The drawing no longer seemed apropos since he’d obviously been to the barber. Not only was his hair shorter, but the sexy, three-day-whiskers were gone as well as the flannel shirt and work trousers. A black, double-breasted frock coat and gray wool trousers hugged his body as if the tailor had stitched the garments on him.
How will he ever get them off?
Her eyes remained fixed on him, and she scrambled for words. After a beat or two of silence, she pointed to the empty chair on the other side of the table. “Would you care to join me for a glass of wine?”
He studied her for a moment. Had she committed a faux pas? When he gave her an approving smile, she relaxed a smidgeon.
“I’d be pleased.” He eased his long, muscular frame into the chair and signaled the waiter. “Mrs. MacKlenna has offered to share a glass of wine.”
The scent of bay rum wafted across the table and settled in her lungs. The smell would later wrap her in thoughts of the man and his doppelganger. “I didn’t realize you were in the dining room.”
He glanced across the room. “From where you’re sitting, you would only have seen my back. I didn’t notice you until I got up to leave.”
The waiter set a glass on the table and poured. Cullen picked up the crystal stemware and leaned back in his chair, his expression thoughtful. He sipped, rolled the wine in his mouth, swallowed, and saluted her with the glass. “My compliments.” The wine appeared golden in the candle’s flickering flame. “The Barretts are fine folks. You’ll get on well.”
She folded her arms on the table and leaned forward. “I can’t thank you enough for the introduction.”
“I’ve known for some time they needed help. Your coming to town was providential.”
Another liar’s blush spread warmth across her face, and she glanced away. When she turned back, she found him watching her intently. “I’ll have to find a way to repay you.”
He scrunched his brows in mock thought and lifted his glass. “This is repayment.”
A young waiter cleared their table. When he turned to leave, he accidently bumped into a tall, redheaded army captain. Cullen jumped up in time to steady the waiter’s tray. The soldier brushed his jacket as if he’d been shot at and wasn’t sure whether or not he had been injured.
“Quick action, Montgomery.”
“I’d hate to see your uniform sullied by the remains of Mrs. MacKlenna’s lemon pie.” A smile ticked at the corner of Cullen’s lip.
The soldier relaxed his rigid stance and said in a lighter tone, “It appears I survived unscathed.”
Cullen stepped aside, and Kit saw the captain’s sharp, angular face. Piercing dark eyes rested on her, sending an involuntary shiver to her fingers, causing her glass to shake and spilling wine onto the white tablecloth. The pieces of her father’s chess set were Civil War officers, and she’d studied history while playing the game. The carved features on one of the wooden pieces matched the face of man standing before her.
General William Tecumseh ‘March to the Sea’ Sherman.
“Mrs. MacKlenna, may I introduce Captain Sherman,” Cullen said.
The captain bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
Her mouth turned dry, and all she could do was return a faint smile. She’d grown up going to galas and fundraisers and sitting on Millionaires’ Row at the Kentucky Derby with movie stars and politicians. Famous people had never rendered her nervous or speechless—until now.
Sherman straightened. “If you’ll excuse me, my dinner guests are waiting.” He nodded to Kit and then turned to Cullen. “I’ll see you in San Francisco in a few months.”
“I’ll look forward to it. If you need legal advice before I arrive, I hope you’ll call on Mr. Phillips. He’ll introduce you to our partner, Braham McCabe.”
“I’ll certainly do that.” The men shook hands, and the captain left.
Cullen sat and pulled his chair to the table. “The captain resigned his commission and is moving to San Francisco to open a branch of a large St. Louis banking house. I hope to get his legal business.”
Kit raised an eyebrow then spoke in a calm voice not wanting her surprise to appear overly dramatic. “You’re a lawyer?”
“I earned a degree in law from Harvard.”
“But you said you were leading the wagon train with Mr. Peters.”
Cullen leaned back in his chair and stroked his chin. After a moment, he answered. “I met John Barrett several weeks ago. He told me he’d joined up with a large extended family from Indiana. Issues developed among the group and the organizing member quit, leaving them without a leader. They had guidebooks but no one had enough confidence to govern a wagon train. I brought Henry and John’s group together. Henry had one condition that nearly brought the negotiations to a standstill. He wanted me to sign on as guide. After a sidebar conversation that was actually more arm-twisting than discussion, I agreed.”
She discerned nothing in his voice that indicated he regretted his decision, but still it seemed like interlocking pieces from two different puzzles. “Lawyer. Guide. I don’t get it.”
A laugh came from deep in his throat. “I’ve made this trip before. That’s why I agreed.”
Kit sank into a panic. A lawyer was going to lead her to South Pass. Not that being a lawyer and having a good sense of direction were mutually exclusive, but… “One trip? Don’t you need more experience than that?”
“Road’s well marked.”
“Wagons will be ahead and behind us.”
Help won’t be far away.
“We won’t get lost, if that’s got you worried.”
Damn right, I’m worried.
The long, thin fingers she’d noticed earlier caressed his glass and swirled the wine in tiny circles. He stopped and studied the streaks rolling down the wine-coated sides. “Why are you going to Oregon?”
She sat very still and stared into the fire. “I’m not…I mean, I didn’t plan this until—”
Along with the sounds of shattering crystal and silverware clanging against metal, came the terrorizing memory of colliding cars. Shards of stemware scattered across the floor. A small piece flew up and scraped her check. She touched her face then rubbed the scar on the right side of her neck. Numbing sensations rushed to her arms and face. Afraid she’d faint, she whispered, “Please, get me out of here.”
Now you've been introduced to Cullen, Henry, Kit, Sandy, Elliott, Sean, Mary, Tate, Tabor, Stormy, John, Adam, Sarah, Frances, Elizabeth, and Captain Sherman. Leave a comment about one of the characters and someone will be randomly selected to win a Smashwords coupon for a free download of The Ruby Brooch.Chapter Five will be posted tomorrow.